Saturday, November 04, 2006

Toward a New Vision of Urban Ministry in Rochester

Remarks to the 75th Convention of the Diocese of Rochester, October 29, 2006

Last year’s Diocesan Convention passed a resolution asking for a Task Force to be set up to examine the Diocese’s response to a growing epidemic of violence in the City of Rochester, particularly among young people. The Bishop asked me to chair that Task Force with the staff support of Canon Steve Lane.

I wish I could report to you that the Task Force had worked hard and had a list of concrete action items to present to you, as the resolution envisioned. Representatives of many Rochester and Monroe District churches met on three occasions and began a conversation. A variety of factors prevented us from continuing our work.

Unfortunately, the violence continues. We have just had another extraordinarily violent summer in Rochester. More young people were shot, although fewer of them died than in 2005, which has meant less media attention.

One of the deaths, however, was a young man named Rodnell Hartzog, the father of a 3 year old member of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, and the grandson of a longtime active member. Rodnell’s life and his death typified in many ways the culture of despair that is epidemic among young people in Rochester. He had been in and out of prison and was what many would dismiss as a “gang-banger.” But Rodnell was also a child of God who I buried in the section of Mt. Hope Cemetery owned by several of our churches.

We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation that Rodnell’s life and death did not matter. If nothing else we must question our own values that insist that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on our security at airports and next to nothing in comparison to keep little children safe in our city neighborhoods. The message, whether we intend it or not, is that black kids are expendable to us. If that statement shocks or offends you, than you ought to demand that the church (at least the church) become a major force in raising the issue and solving the problem.

So I, for one, am not willing to let go of this issue. Despite the lack of action, I do think that we learned several things in our conversations that point a way forward. Four, in particular:

• Many congregations are doing a variety of important ministries in the City of Rochester, although they are being done largely in isolation and even ignorance of one another’s efforts. This is not helpful.

• Despite these efforts, and partially because of their isolated existence, the need before us is for a cross-parish strategy for urban ministry. Unless we do this, we can only be do-gooders and not problem-solvers.

• We cannot be problem-solvers either as parishes or a diocese if we are not consistently engaging the issues of race and class privilege that underlie the problem of violence and the culture of despair. We must re-engage anti-racism work and we need to engage economic justice. The truth is that we are significantly ambivalent about taking up this work, but we also must come to terms with the fact that our ambivalence signals our effective abandonment of the city and the majority of its people who do not, by and large, inhabit our churches. And if we don’t think there is a direct connection between our ambivalence about anti-racism and economic justice work and who populates our churches, we are greatly deceived.

• The Rochester City churches of our Diocese need to take responsibility for any renewal of urban ministry on a diocesan level. This is not to re-create an old divide between urban and suburban that has been ameliorated by the joint functioning of our Rochester and Monroe Districts. It is to say that there are distinct urban issues, about which the city churches need to get clear in order to engage effectively the rest of the diocese, including the suburbs, where there is a natural ambivalence about urban issues.

To this end, Canon Lane and I are asking the Bishop and Diocesan Council to support a summit of the leadership of Rochester District Churches to determine whether a cooperative urban ministry strategy can be developed and implemented. We are also asking the Bishop and Council to renew the diocesan Anti-Racism Committee and consider implementation of anti-racism training that has been required by the General Convention since 2000. I personally pledge several members of my own parish to help in this effort, as we ourselves are in the process of re-engaging anti-racism and reconciliation ministry.

I hope those of you in the other Districts of the Diocese are aware of the importance of these efforts not exclusive of issues in your own areas of the Diocese. As most of you know, I am a son of the Southern Tier, and I am here to tell you that unless we begin to get a handle on the culture of despair and violence among our young people in the city, your towns and villages are next. Most of you are probably already seeing signs of this where you live, as I am in my hometown of Avoca.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, to reach outside of our comfort zones and let the world know that young people like Rodnell Hartzog are not only children of God but should be treated as if they are. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage to push ourselves to be more than good deed doers. Let us be problem solvers, so that no more children of God have to die in our own city.

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